Remembering Vin McCarthy, trailblazer and homeless advocate

At a Pine Street Inn benefit dinner, Mr. McCarthy (left) joined Lyndia Downie, president of Pine Street Inn, Pulitzer Prize author Frank McCourt, and Pat  Pirelli.
At a Pine Street Inn benefit dinner, Mr. McCarthy (left) joined Lyndia Downie, president of Pine Street Inn, Pulitzer Prize author Frank McCourt, and Pat Pirelli.Brett, Bill Globe Photo

Vin McCarthy was a political activist, a trailblazer in the Boston legal community, and a crucial figure in helping some of the neediest people among us.

To Lyndia Downey, the longtime head of the Pine Street Inn, he was a great champion for Boston's homeless. Along with Bob Walsh, and Monsignor Frank Kelley, he was one of the cornerstones of the agency for a half-century.

Not many people knew how much they did to help the homeless in Boston, or for how long, or with how much dedication. And that was just the way they wanted it.

McCarthy died earlier this month in Los Angeles, at age 79. That followed by four months the passing of his good friend Walsh, the former Boston Redevelopment Authority director and civic activist. Suddenly, only Monsignor Kelley survives.


They all got involved in Pine Street around 1970, when people sleeping on the streets were routinely disparaged as bums and petty criminals, long before their prevalence was viewed as a measure of a city’s social health. McCarthy, Walsh, and Kelley used their collective political skills and connections to help engineer the move of Pine Street from Chinatown to an old fire station in the South End, which probably saved it. They remained dedicated activists and board members for nearly 50 years after that.

“The three of them were our base,” Downie said. “They stood up for us when it wasn't a cause, when (the homeless) were just people who slept outside on the street.”

And they did so selflessly.

“They never asked for anything,” Downie said. “They never asked for anything named after them. They were egoless about it. They created the template for what Pine Street is.”

McCarthy was a working-class kid from Brighton, who worked his way into a major Boston law firm, Hale and Dorr, after graduation in 1965. (It’s now WilmerHale.) But he had caught the bug of civic activism, and he pushed the firm to begin representing new nonprofit clients pro bono. That’s how he came to represent a homeless shelter that was itself looking for a new home.


“If you think back to that time — 1968, 1969 — it was a time of change,” McCarthy’s son Vincent told me. “My father was an idealist and a political idealist. I think people hoped to make a difference. He loved the city of Boston, he loved politics, and he believed political action could be a force for good.”

McCarthy’s activism didn’t end there. In the early 1980s, he did something then unthinkable for a rainmaker at a big Boston law firm, when he came out as gay. He went on to become one of the founding board members of the Human Rights Campaign, the high-powered LGBT advocacy group.

He was also a longtime recovering alcoholic. Downie said that experience had direct bearing on the empathy he felt for the people Pine Street serves, not a few of whom struggle with substance abuse.

“Vin, in particular, really understood what life was like for guests,” she said. “He never let us forget what it was like for people to come in and have that sense of your life going (sour).”

Walsh is well known for participating in one of City Hall’s legendary acts of principled rebellion as BRA director. He chose to be fired by Mayor Kevin White, rather than agreeing to designate one of White’s friends to build what became the Marriott Long Wharf. He brought that same integrity to helping to guide Pine Street.


“They were courageous,” Downie said. “They pushed me when I needed to be pushed, which I appreciated. And they had wicked senses of humor. To put the three of them in a room, you would just die laughing. They didn’t lose a lot of sleep over small stuff. They were big thinkers, all of them.”

The Pine Street Inn might be Boston’s most instantly recognizable social service agency. But the building of such an institution didn’t just happen. It came through the work of people who didn’t want their names on anything, but who wanted to leave knowing they’d made a difference.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.